Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Katherine Heavey: "Shakespeare’s Names"

Katherine Heavey
Durham University

Book Review

Laurie Maguire, Shakespeare’s Names, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2007), 256 pp. + vi. ISBN: 978-0-19-921997-1. $60.00 (USD).

1> In Shakespeare’s Names, Laurie Maguire’s abiding argument is that “names matter; and names are matter”. She seeks to prove that names, in Shakespeare and elsewhere, are often “material entities capable of assuming lives and voices of their own”. To this end, she divides the book effectively between a general discussion of names and naming in the early modern period and beyond, and more focused discussion of specific kinds of names in Shakespeare’s plays: patronymics, names weighted by the mythological past, diminutive or nicknames, and even place names. Frequently, her points about Shakespeare’s names are profitably illustrated either by reference to more modern works or authors who use names and naming in analogous ways, or to specific performances of Shakespeare’s plays which, she argues, have particularly important points to make about these names.

2> In the general survey that comprises Chapter One, Maguire begins by pointing to the centrality of names, from antiquity to the present day—she points out that to have no name is to be bizarre, is to be unknown. At the same time, though, she points to the power that can, paradoxically, spring from namelessness. Her use of the classical character Odysseus and the folkloric Rumpelstilzchen as two examples of the power of anonymity demonstrates the range of examples consistently employed throughout the book, and suggests the extent to which Shakespeare’s Names may be of use to scholars and students interested in a more general theory of naming. Maguire points to texts as diverse as The Jew of Malta, The Rape of the Lock, The Miller’s Tale and Macbeth to show how critics have linked characters’ identities, and their importance within their texts, to how soon their name is introduced, how often it is used, and indeed if it is known at all. She then engages with what she shows to be a perennial debate about the relationship between name and identity. Maguire notes the power inherent in naming, and goes on to argue that deliberately generic names imply (and/or create) a loss of character identity. However, she argues “Shakespeare’s drama eschews onomastic predestination. Instead, Shakespeare shows characters struggling with onomastic inheritance, trying through deeds to thwart or merit the associations of their label”.

3> Focusing on Romeo and Juliet in Chapter Two, Maguire points to the pair’s desperate attempts to escape the power of their (parentally-imposed) names. She uses Robert Le Page and Gordon McCall’s bilingual Canadian production (1989-90) to illustrate language’s central role in conflict, suggesting that the clash between the Montagues and Capulets becomes a clash of two cultures, not just of two families, as illustrated by the play’s constant code-switching. Despite this production’s interest in heightening the conflict through use of language, though, Maguire argues that Shakespeare, finally, envisages some kind of too-late solution to the pair’s tragedy, a suggestion that they have finally escaped their families’ control. Noting the final lines, “Never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet, and her Romeo”, she argues that, in “the play’s concluding focus on the personal rather than the patronymic, Shakespeare and Verona take a step closer to onomastic purity”.

4> In her discussion of mythological names, Maguire takes Helen of Troy as an example of a name that would have needed little explanation (indeed, though it is needed now, she points to the qualifier “of Troy” as needless tautology in the early modern period). Herself using deliberately contentious and emotive names as comparisons, Maguire argues that the associations “Helen” evoked in the period would be as immediate as they were negative: “As Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein function in today’s culture, so Helen functioned in the Renaissance: a byword for sexual appetite or disaster or both”. However, focusing on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Maguire attempts to show Shakespeare’s efforts to recreate Helen through Helena. Here, Helena is the sexual predator, rather than the object of desire, and indeed she even complains at length about her own ugliness, until, as Maguire notes, Puck’s error creates the helpless desire (and the resultant male competitiveness) that her name implies. Turning to All’s Well That Ends Well, Maguire notes that Shakespeare has changed the name of his source’s female protagonist to Helena, and argues “Given the associations of Helen, the choice is neither innocent nor careless”. In fact, she argues convincingly that Helena is again a sympathetic reworking of Helen, once more the pursuer rather than the pursued. More problematically, though, Maguire sees Cressida in Troilus and Cressida as a similar remodelling of Helen and her situation. Moreover, while she acknowledges that Helen is represented unsympathetically in this last play, Maguire points to Helen’s closeness to Paris, and his fond renaming of her as “Nell”, as evidence of a positive relationship between the pair. Here, perhaps, a more detailed discussion of Helen’s names would have been profitable: for example, a consideration of Paris’ attempts to rename her, to make her unequivocally his, and removed from the “Helen” who is a constant source of discussion and debate throughout the play.

5> In Chapter Four, her consideration of the “diminutive name”, Maguire argues that by using a diminutive name for someone, or by using many names for the same character, we render them unknowable. Focussing on The Taming of the Shrew, she points to how the diminutive (“Kate” for “Katherine”) can be either affectionate or demeaning: significantly, Petruchio calls her Kate in an attempt to ingratiate himself into her family, but later ignores the heroine’s specific request that he call her Katherine. Maguire argues that critics and editors tend to follow Petruchio’s example. Katherine herself complains that the men in the play reject her attempts at self-definition by calling her Kate, and Maguire contrasts this realisation with Christopher Sly’s assertion of his own name and identity in the face of others’ confusion. As she has done previously, Maguire then turns to a consideration of a specific performance: the 2006 Oxford Shakespeare company production of the Shrew. Maguire notes that the actor playing Sly had to play multiple parts, which were sometimes onstage simultaneously, and accordingly found himself interacting with empty space, meant to represent another character. Pointing to the audience’s necessary suspension of disbelief here, Maguire argues that such blanks and uncertainties implicate the reader and/or spectator in their consideration of the play, its names and identities.

6> In her closing chapter, “The Place Name: Ephesus”, Maguire considers Shakespeare’s intriguing and significant alteration of his source (Plautus’ Menaechmi) in The Comedy of Errors. She notes that the introduction of a second set of twins exponentially increases the potential for confusion (and specifically mistaken identity). Once again, Maguire points to the deliberate confusion or occlusion of women’s identities in Shakespeare: the courtesan, named in Plautus, here is anonymous (and here, it seems, anonymity does not bring power). Significantly, she argues that in changing the location from Epidamnus to Ephesus, Shakespeare deliberately recalls the motifs of witchcraft and confusion that were associated with Ephesus, and of the manifold divisions in historical Ephesus (between Greeks and Jews, Christianity and magic, trade and religion). Maguire points to the confusion and instability that seems perpetuated, rather than comfortingly resolved, at the play’s conclusion, and links this to its location: “the play” she concludes “could not have happened in Epidamnus”.

7> Maguire’s book constitutes a compelling account of a range of Shakespeare’s plays and the significance of names therein. The combination of close readings and accounts of recent productions proves useful, and a detailed consideration of the issues of identity, disguise, confusion and ownership, which Maguire finds to be utterly entangled with Shakespeare’s names and naming, proves both entertaining and thought-provoking.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

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